Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Why you should vote (and why libertarian non-voters are wrong)


Before the last general election I wrote a piece about why you should vote and concluded:

So why vote? The answer is simple and it’s the answer your granny used to give. You vote because it’s the right thing to do and because, however insignificant it might be, voting is often the only chance you’ve got of getting something changed. People really did chuck themselves under horses, people really did get killed, people really did strike, march and protest so as to get that right to pick up a stubby pencil and mark a cross in a box once in a while. Don’t get me wrong, if you choose not to bother it doesn’t make you a bad person – you’re not really letting down your suffragette great grandma or the great uncle killed on D-day.

So go and vote it’s your chance to do something. And do it loudly, proudly and knowing that it’s the most significantly insignificant act you can undertake.

I realise that this is probably insufficient as a proper philosophical analysis of voting. But I find the libertarian argument for not voting to be founded on a profound misunderstanding of voting's purpose. Here's Sam Bowman from the Adam Smith Institute (quoted by Chris Snowdon from the Institute of Economic Affairs):

‘If your aim is to affect policy, voting is irrational. If you want to act ethically, voting is irrelevant. Mathematically, the chances of a single vote actually determining the outcome of an election in a meaningful way (that will affect policy outcomes) is infinitesimally small.’

And I guess that, if the purpose of voting was to influence policy, Sam might have a point. But, as we all should know, voting's purpose is the election of a person not a policy. In a representative democracy we use voting to choose someone to go off to parliament because all sixty odd million of us can't fit into the building. Technology will probably make this obsolete (for a description of the problems this might entail go and read Norman Spinrad's 'The World Between') but right now that's not an option. Now if Sam's not bothered who represents him then there's no point in voting - he can make the rational decision not to fuss himself with the minor inconvenience of toddling along to the polling station. But if Sam is bothered then casting his insignificant vote is the only way in which he can influence that choice.

To return to influencing policy, there is a modicum of smugness about the director of an influential think tank talking about how voting doesn't affect policy. After all that director has the means and the capacity to influence policy by virtue of being in charge of a think tank. And the same would go for the chief executive of some large organisation able to invest its PR pounds in lobbying. But spare a thought for Mr Crowther in Cullingworth who doesn't have a think tank and doesn't have the funds to lobby government officials about policy. Voting is one of the very few ways in which that man can have a say on things that matter to him.

Finally there's Eamonn Butler's argument (also cited by Chris Snowdon) that writing a message to the candidates on a ballot paper is better than actually using said ballot for its intended purpose. This is an observation made my someone who has clearly never been anywhere near the counting of votes at an election. As a candidate my access to that ballot would be for a fleeting second while we review spoilt ballots - the returning officer will point out that the writing means the person could be identified and therefore the ballot is invalid before moving on to the ballor with a neat drawing of a penis carefully inscribed in the Tory candidate's box (which is incidently a valid vote for that candidate). Eamonn's message will not be read - he would have wasted his time.

Voting is an insignificant act but not one without purpose or point and collectively those insignificant acts can be significant (Sam and his friends not turning up may result in a government that bans right wing think tanks). There may be a case for alternatives - lotteries, policy panels, military dictatorship and so forth - but, in practical terms, we have to engage with the system we have in place. Because that's an election the result will be determined by those who turn up and vote not by those who don't.

So go and vote folks!

For those interested in creative approaches to marking the ballot here is the current Electoral Commission Guidance on doubtful ballots (pdf|)



Anonymous said...

Is drawing a penis in a candidate's box really a valid vote? Do you have a reference I could look up to check? I wasn't going to vote but this might just persuade me.

Simon Cooke said...

Have put the link to guidance on doubtful ballots at the foot of the post - hope that helps!

Junican said...

There are problems with your argument. Imagine a person who has been condemned to death being able to vote for whom the hangman should be out of three candidates.
There is a reasonable argument which states that any Parliament which is elected by less than 50% of the electorate is illegitimate. If more than 50% of the electorate refuse to vote or cannot be bothered, then there is something seriously wrong with the system.
A am a smoker and have been since I was about 17, apart for a few occasions when I packed up smoking for varying periods of time. I am now 75 and in good health.
Over the last few years, I have been appalled by the ignorance of various Tory Health Ministers. First, Milton MP said in the commons that the UK was 'legally obliged' to enact provisions of the FCTC. That is rubbish. A treaty is an agreement, but not a legal one. Secondly, Soubry MP, health minister, thought that ecigs had been withdrawn from the EU tobacco directive, which was not so. Recently, Allison MP, health minister, steered through parliament plain packaging of cigs 'for the sake of the youth'. How can she not see that PP has nothing to do with children and youth but has everything to do with rendering tobacco company products indistinguishable from each other so that tobacco companies become indistinguishable from each other. It is akin to, "You can have any colour of car you like, provided that it is a shade of grey".
THE PEOPLE do not want a gang of autocratic communists in Brussels deciding what public policy should be. They don't want a similar gang in the WHO deciding that health is the new religion, or that the UN World Bank and such should govern the UK's economy.
It is those kind of arguments that render candidates for election to be flimsy.
I was in two minds about whether to vote UKIP or Tory. The recent promotion of plain packaging of tobacco products settled the argument. I will not vote for anyone who states his intention to persecute me.